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Apprentices in Demand at Sheet Metal Workers Training Centre
Enough with the recession, already. Or at least that’s the word on the street. The Industry Training Authority and the provincial government tell of better times to come, and reports released by the Construction Sector Council, and even by SMACNA-BC at the AGM indicate that October is the time when the recovery should begin.
The Major Projects Inventory tracks capital projects over $15 million in capital costs or $20 million in the Lower Mainland. According to the most recent installment released in March, there are 26 new proposed projects over $15 million for the first quarter of 2012, with capital cost estimates totalling approximately $7.4 billion in potential new capital investment.
The capital cost of all major projects currently under construction in B.C. is estimated at $78.9 billion, up from $73.5 billion reported in Q4 of 2011. The vast majority are residential and commercial developments, but industrial categories are pulling their weight too. Take mining, for instance.
An annual survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) summarizing financial results and major trends in mining in British Columbia says gross mining revenue has grown by an unprecedented $2 billion to $9.9 billion in 2011. The average number of people working for BC mining companies increased in 2011 from 8,195 employees to 9,310 and continues to be an area of focus. Earnings also increased seven per cent to $115,700 per employee.
This is obviously good for the industry, but from a training perspective things could get tricky. The 2009-2010 economic downturn left many would-be apprentices in a bleak position—those that were curious about the profession had few employment prospects coming out, and those who were enthusiastic had more attractive offers from across the provincial border.
Now the tides have turned and the Sheet Metal Workers Training Center (SMWTC) is wondering who will fill the positions opening up in the fall and into next year. “It goes the other way too,” says Jud Martell, SMWTC’s training coordinator. “The retirement is also coming.”
He points out that while many retirement age people in construction stuck it out through the recession because their retirement funds and investments took a hit, a recovery may mean a green light to hang up their work boots. “It only pushes off the inevitable,” says Martell. “When good times arrive we’ll have the 57 to 64 age group retiring at the same time every year instead of in cycles.”
If the average 30 per cent return on applicants figure can be trusted, the Training Center will need something in the neighbourhood of 160 applicants over the summer. “I am hoping to put it out there in case anyone is interested,” he says. “At least now I can go out and say there are jobs.”
This is largely because the timing is right for getting the work done, he says. And the draw is that the industry is changing and there are a lot of options across B.C. “The work still has to get done,” says Martell. “We need people willing to work through the four years and be those good, solid mechanics making $60,000 a year in their early 20s.”
The mining and forest industries are prime activity centers for people in all sectors of construction. Rio Tinto has developments all over the province, including the $3.3 billion smelter retrofit in Kitimat. In fact, there is $90 billion in investment in B.C.’s north right now, where only seven per cent of the population lives.
“Wait until they figure out they need new systems to take the dust out of sawmills because of beetle wood,” says Martell. “It is mandatory to replace them, and someone has to do it.”
In the Lower Mainland, Surrey has promising horizons with a hospital, postal building, and other commercial developments on the way. So the issue isn’t inadequate employment numbers—it is inadequate apprenticeship numbers.
“I am missing the ability to drum up people,” says Martell. “We’ve always depended on word of mouth and good business to bring apprentices in. Contractors will still do that, but it’s not as easy because of pulls from other places.”
Hopefully activity in B.C.’s industry is enough to counter the magnetism of the oil sands and keep apprentices local. “There is nothing like looking after an apprentice, getting him all trained and acclimatized to hard work so he can go off and make three times as much in Alberta,” says Martell.
“We’ve proven we make the finest sheet metal journeys in the country,” he says. “It’s time to tell your friends and neighbours it’s a rewarding career.”